One sad fact about the life of the sporting goods you use is that most of them are made to be destroyed. That goes for baseballs and bats, footballs, golf balls, tennis balls and rackets, badminton birds and basketballs. All of which helps to explain why a group of serious-minded men in Chicopee, Mass. have been taxing their brains for years to raise the lively art of destruction to new heights of glory.
These dedicated destroyers work in the research laboratory of a big plant run by A. G. Spalding & Bros. Inc., and—slanderously nutty as this may make them sound—their lifework is to invent mechanical gizmos that will wreck sporting equipment as fast as possible. They claim it's the only way to learn how to make your sporting equipment sturdier and more durable when you play with it.
THE WHACKING MACHINE
Consider the life and hard times of a tennis racket selected for experimental slaughter in the Chicopee lab. It is spirited from the factory and placed inside a cockeyed contrivance which they refer to, with a creator's pride, as The Whacking Machine.
January 17, 1955
Now The Whacking Machine—roughly speaking—looks something like a small drop forge nestled inside a large chicken coop. The handle of the doomed tennis racket is clamped into the viselike clutch of a robot tennis player. A switch is pulled. A roaring noise is heard. Chains whir. And tennis balls start to fall out of a gimmick above that resembles a piece of stove pipe—one every second. But grosses of tennis balls aren't needed for this operation; after one is smashed by the robot, it flies unerringly into a chute that carries it around to—and down through—the stovepipe again. To drop again and to be re-smashed.
This robot tennis player is geared up to strike a service blow which would chase Tony Trabert off a court. It has a velocity nearly double that of the top-ranking players. And Rapid Robert Robot strikes this blow 60 times a minute so that the racket gets a full season's hard play in one hour. A routine test usually lasts four hours, or more than 15,000 service blows.
But if you think these lab boys are rough on a tennis racket, consider the way they give the works to a poor little ski that was just lying around in stock, minding its own business. The ski is clamped inside a contraption they invented and proudly named The Torture Tester. When the switch is thrown on The Torture Tester it starts to flex the ski, now clamped at each end, in such a way that it resembles a long snake, nailed head and tail to a board, and writhing in agony.
This writhing is made possible because The Torture Tester is cunningly contrived to flex the ski many inches above and below its normal camber, or bending ability. In one hour it is flexed 15,000 times. "Just to make sure it gets maximum brutal treatment," the lab men explain.
Baseballs and golf balls are not let off any easier. Plenty of fancy destruction has been dreamed up for them. The helpless baseball finds itself locked inside something called The Air Cannon. The cannon fires the ball into a steel stockade located in front of the cannon at an angle of 45°. It is shot with a force that never changes—and it is far more than the force behind the swish of a bat in the hands of, say, Ted Williams.
The golf ball is taken for a real ride too. It is put inside a driving machine on the factory proving grounds, outside. There it is blasted by a mechanically swung club. It takes off in flight at a speed of 156 mph and goes clean out of sight, to be found and picked up later. The robot golfer always hits to the same place, for the same distance.
Another little surprise in store for the golf ball is a test of its cover's toughness. This is accomplished by a machine that the inventors named The Guillotine because that's exactly what it is, in miniature. Once The Guillotine descends, the lab men guarantee that the golf ball will ache in every dimple of its body.
They've worked out planned destruction for footballs and basketballs too. They use compressors which squeeze both until they burst, and at the same time register the exact number of pounds of pressure being exerted at the point of total collapse.
Not long ago a football, inflated to its normal 13 pounds, absorbed 24,500 pounds of pressure before it finally blew its bladder. A basketball was compressed to one half of its diameter, over and over again. After 10,000 such squeezes, it finally popped.
A LONG WAY TO GO
Some of these daffy-looking inventions by the lab brain trust have actually taken many years to work out. The Whacking Machine, for instance, required a total of 10 years to become the practically peerless wrecker of tennis rackets that it is today. The Air Cannon has been five years abooming but the lab crew feels it's not quite the dreamboat of damage it will be someday. They are idealists, of course.
Thus, though the lively art of destruction has come a long way in Chicopee since the invention of the egg beater, it still has far to go. As one of these masters of mayhem said, with quiet determination, the day he watched a ski come out of The Torture Tester uncracked and unsplit: "Gentlemen, you know what this means—we have just begun to fight."